Leading carnatic vocalist T.V. Sankaranarayanan receives the 'Sangita Kalanidhi' award from The Music Academy this year. In an interview with Aruna. S of KutcheriBuzz, the lawyer-turned-vocalist shares his experiences...
Congrats. What do you feel on receiving this honour?
I'm very happy. Getting this award is because of the blessings of Govindan and the wellwishes of the rasikas. I consider this as an honour for the rasikas.
How did you begin your musical career?
We lived in a joint family in Mayawaram, near Thanjavur. I was 8 years old when I started learning music. We lived with my mama (Uncle, Madurai Mani Iyer). Ever since I was born, I've been with him. I remember I used to sing varnams when I was 8. I learnt the basic lessons from my mother Gomathy Vembu Iyer, and then continued training under mama. The first song I learnt under him was 'Giri raja sutha...' And when I was about 12. I used to sing most of the songs he sang. And at some of the sabhas, I used to sing along with mama on the higher octave of what he sang. Since childhood, I had a good 'Swara Gnanam' and used to sing the swarams for film songs, like those of Devadas.
When did you move to Madras?
In 1956. Untill then I studied at the Municipal High School in Mayawaram (where, Kalki Krishnamurthy studied) On moving to Madras, I joined the 2nd form (VII class) here. We lived at the house next to the telephone exchange on Luz Church Road. For 4 years we were there. And we built this house at Karpagambal Nagar. And we've been here the last 45 years.
How was the Mylapore area in those days?
It used to be a very calm and quiet area. There was no traffic as you see these days. Avenue trees looked beautiful on Luz Church Road. Today, our street has become very noisy. I did my SSLC at P. S. High School, where I studied from 2nd form. And in those days, Music Academy hosted its concerts at the P. S. High School grounds. A pandal used to be put up. Prior to this (in early 50's) Academy hosted its kutcheries at Sundareswarar Hall. I remember when I was doing my SSLC in 1959, my mama got Sangita Kalanidhi. On 1 Jan. 1960, at the Sadas, when he was conferred the title, I read his Kalanidhi address. His eyesight was not well enough and so I read his address. It was a big honour. Some old time rasikas still remember that address.
That is a contrast from the A/C auditoriums we have today. What was the ambience like then? It was a different kind of an ambience. The roof was thatched. Front rows had sofas and there were cane chairs behind. We did have mikes and the audience was huge too.
So, have you been a full fledged singer ever since?
Actually, at that time, there was a lull in my musical learning. I was a cricket fan. Apart from going to school, I used to spend all my time playing cricket. Music took a second track. When I was in SSLC, it was a kind of a dormant period in music. It was just studies and cricket. In fact, Venkataraghavan, was my classmate. We used to play test matches together. I was not bad at all in cricket. I was an all-rounder. I used to be good at googlies. And if I had continued playing, I would have definitely attained a certain grade in the game. I used to play noticeably well. I remember watching 5-day matches, sitting at M Block and screaming. We used to practice at our school campus and at Ramakrishna grounds. My role model was P.R. Umbrigar (a player from Bombay), Pankaj Rai, Gupte, Vinoo Mankat... I've watched all of them play. When Garry Sobers (of W. Indies) toured India, I attended all the days at the Madras cricket test matches. It used to be held at the corporation stadium (now Nehru Stadium). And then I left cricket. Since I was 15 right upto when I was 23, I started practising music more seriously with mama.
How did you get back to music? How did the changeover happen?
Just after SSLC, I had to decide what to do, with regard to my career. There was a sudden change in my mind and I started learning music seriously. My mama felt I had to take up music and concentrate on it. He said, "Choose either cricket or music" and I chose music. It was not a too difficult thing for me, since I already had the interest.
Did you ever regret quitting cricket?
Well, I did feel bad about it. But, since I had an innate interest for music, it was a natural switch over.
You studied law too. Did you get to practise at the court as well?
I did my B.Com at Vivekananda college. And I was quite studious. I never used to skip classes. So I didn't travel much on concert tours with mama. But within Madras, I used to perform alongwith mama. By that time, my voice had broken (change of voice). So, I had to really cultivate my voice. It was quite difficult to adapt to the new voice. I used to practise regularly. I used to wake up the whole of Karpagambal Nagar with my singing! But meanwhile, I had also done my law and had a few offers for a job. I went to the court for 15 days to practise. I joined as a junior under V. Srinivasa Iyer. But those 15 days, I had no time for music. And on one day, mama asked me what happened to my singing. And at that time, he decided my career and said I have to concentrate on music. And that decided what I did. These days, the younger generations know exactly what they want to do. They are so focused and the decision making is only theirs. But in those days, we could never decide on what we wanted. And I allowed my mama to decide everything for me. It was he who wanted me to do law, because he had great admiration for the great advocates of those years. He felt it would broaden one's outlook. I studied well too and got 2nd rank in law. But, music has been in the family for so many years. For the sake of education, I had to do law. Whatever was suitable, I could take it up. When I decided on music as a career, I never thought whether it would fetch me money or whether I would be successful. Even now, I wouldn't call myself a 'Professional'. With God's blessings, things are happening. I never thought of it as a livelihood.
In those days was it easy to get a kutcheri. Were you invited or did you have to ask for it?
It was too difficult then. It was only by word of mouth. People saw me singing along with mama. They came to know of me and then gave a concert. And concerts were not too many in those days, like it is now. We didn't have so much exposure in those days. We had to really slog. >From one kutcheri to the next, I had to build up my audience. We also didn't have opportunities to release cassettes. I cut my very first cassette in 1983. And in those days, it was only HMV. But these days, there are more opportunities. And also, in those days, it was not easy to be accepted. At that time, there were veterans who were tradition bound and conservative. There were seniors like Semmangudi. And they had to accept the younger musicians. And to get this endorsement, it was very hard. I was fortunate to belong to a great parampara. And more fortunate to have senior musicians accompany me for my very first concert.
Memories of your first concert...
It was on 1 February 1968, when T. N. Krishnan sir suggested to my uncle that I sing. On the same day, I performed my first solo concert before my uncle. I had T. N. Krishnan sir on the violin and Vellore Ramabhadran sir on mridangam accompanying me. And the concert was at our house in Karpagambal Nagar. And after my uncle's approval, the very next day, I performed at the Anjaneyar Swami temple (near Thannithurai market) in Mylapore. It was T. N. Krishnan sir who gave me all the encouragement and in the initial years, he used to accompany me in all my concerts. I've also had Lalgudi sir and Raghu sir accompany me in the initial years of my singing and this gave me the strength. And this was a blessing. Since all of them accompanied my uncle, they knew me from my childhood and were affectionate and treated me like their son. This gave a great start to my career. By the grace of God, I could sustain it and I could endure.
How does an artiste sustain?
With more effort and practice. It needs a lot of hard work. You have to keep on trying to please the audience and give your best. I try to give my best, every time I go on stage. I'm a hardworking person.
Maintaining my voice-level, creativity, display level, professionalism, P.R., how I relate to the organizers, how I relate to the audience. When the audience come to a concert, they should leave the hall, pleased. For 3 hours, I work to give them happiness. From one concert to the next, I slowly develop an audience. Sing for more organizations. And I grow as a valid musician and as a valid human being. I don't fuss about things and have no temperament. I've tried to keep myself as simple as possible. I've tried to suit myself to the needs of the people. One of the valid points for my success is that I don't demand anything. And I've been trained by my mama to be such. He taught me to be disciplined and to be humble. I've been a low profile person. And when it comes to a concert, I give my best.
How do you hold an audience? What is your strong point?
I think it is my sincerity. At every moment of a concert, I give my full concentration. I take things very seriously, wherever it is. Be it at a big sabha or a wedding kutcheri, I give my best. I sing my heart out.
What do you do to acheive this?
Well, that may be nebulous. Music consists of so many things. Firstly, I have to maintain my voice. And for that my physical conditions should be maintained. And this demands some discipline. Emotionally, I try to be positive. I should feel good. When I'm happy I communicate that to my audience. I enjoy myself when I sing. And I communicate that joy. And the audience likes it. And they sing along with me. A rapport is established immediately. And I follow the tradition of my uncle's singing, which people like. Over the years, I have evolved my own style of singing. I use my voice to the full potential. Creativity and open singing are the other elements. I really want to soar the skies...
To reach that level, how long do you practise?
As a student, I used to practise for about four hours in the morning and about three hours in the evening. One has to work very hard. Those years of training stands me in good stead now. And these days, I have a concert almost every day, which itself becomes part of the practice.
People say that when one sings everyday, the voice gets strained. How do you cope up?
There is a knack of preserving your voice, without straining it too much. And this comes with experience. And above all, you need God's blessings. What I am today is because of God's grace. My favourite God is Govindan. And He has been kind to me. And it is also the blessings and affection of all the elders. Seniors vidwans right from Semmangudi sir to K.V.N. sir, they were all close to my mama and father. So, I naturally had their blessings and affection. Similarly even my accompanists and my contemporaries were affectionate and for the younger generation, I'm sought of a role model for them. And I'm and easy going and jolly good fellow! All this has made me what I am.
What is the speciality of your style of singing?
Rather that my style, I'd like to call it the speciality of my mama's style, which is effortless singing of 'sarva-laghu' and 'swaram' singing. Without percussive orientation, singing swarams with a lot of creativity is a speciality of our style. To the best of my ability, I try to bring out this aspect in my singing. Rendering a ragam, laden with bhava, being creative, purity of 'Shruthi' and precision of 'laya' are other important aspects, which add to the success of a concert. I also constantly work on building up a repertoire. Right from the trinity compositions to the latest, I try to update myself all the time. I also have a liking for Tamil. When you sing Tamil compositions, it reaches more people here and I can also focus on the nuances. Sometimes, I also write Tamil poems.
So, do you also compose songs?
Not really. I was not encouraged by my family to compose, following certain beliefs they had. So, I never took to composing.
What else are your interests besides singing?
I've always been a voracious reader. I was a member of all the libraries in Madras during my college days, right from Connemara, the Madras University, British Council, USIS, my college library and even Easwari lending library in Mylapore. I used to like all the 20th century writers of English literature. Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde...I've read all of them. And I'm a fan of P.G. Wodehouse. I love humour and I've read all the 96 novels of his. In fact, when I went to the U.S. in September 1975 I wanted to meet him at Long Island. But unfortunately, he died just a month before I went there. But in 1996, when I went to London, I made it a point to visit the school he studied in, Dulwich college. I saw his classroom, his typewriter and it was great...
What has reading done to you?
It has made me not to be too serious. As in, I take things as they come and I'm able to see the lighter side of everything. And I've become a very positive person. Everything is for good. If I don't get something today, I'll get it tomorrow. I've developed a very positive attitude. You can say that Wodehouse has influenced my life, without me being too concious about it. One should read Wodehouse to see what he has to say. Especially when one is depressed about something, just ten pages of Wodehouse will re-charge you. Even now, if I find time, I take up a book. But I don't seem to find time. I seem to be travelling more.
Can you tell us about your international experience?
My first visit to the U.S was in 1975. Since then, I've been there several time and also to Singapore, Australia, Europe, the Gulf. There is a good audience for Carnatic music in these countries.
What is the difference you see in the U.S audience from 1975 to now?
In the last 25 years, the diaspora has grown and the audience has grown too. After M.S. amma, I was the first male vocalist to be invited there. I toured the entire country and I should say I blossomed after that. It was violin vidwan Chandrasekaran and T.K. Murthy sir on mridangam who accompanied me then.
What did that first tour abroad teach you?
I could use up my repertoire and that gave me confidence. It gave me the necessary lift to my career. I felt that I could go places.
Memories of any special concerts...
I gave the inaugural concert for CMANA (Carnatic Music Association of North America) at New York in 1976. And again for their silver jubilee, they invited me to perform. I also felt proud that I could set a trend for all the younger musicians to perform there.
Have you been training students too?
Frankly, I've trained only a handful of students, because I dont find time to take up teaching very seriously. My concert schedule is very hectic. Also, when you have to teach girls, you have to change your shruthi and this may strain the voice. And it is only today that more boys take up music. In those days, it was not very fashionable for boys to take up music.
Is carnatic music fashionable?
Yes, why not? It is more fashionable! In those days, even finding a bride was difficult if you were a musician. Today the trend has changed. And music is like any other profession. But, you have to make a mark. And today, there are more opportunities and there is money too. At a time when I started, the opportunities were so minimal. Also, it was not a 'money selling proposition'. Today, If you're really good, you can earn money.
How did the change happen, according to you?
In those days, there was no media exposure. We didn't have this kind of a sponsorship. There were no cassettes or CDs. But now, media exposure has really freed this profession from its hands. Today, it is like any other profession. The only thing is that we were more tradition bound and conservative. We wouldn't accept anything immediately for a commercial purpose. But today, anything goes. And in those days we were inculcated with bhakthi, respect for the sabhas and the sadas, a certain devotion towards the compositions, some old world beliefs and so on. But now we cannot expect that from the present generation. When I say 'God', I don't really know if it evokes the same kind of bhakthi from the youngsters these days...the kind of bhakthi our generation has...I'm not judgemental though. I'm myself a quite forward thinking person but I belong to an old profession, very traditional and conservative.
Do you feel that this change in thinking has affected the carnatic music field?
I wouldn't say it is an eroding influence, but it can erode. We have to look at the positive side of the change. We shouldn't let it go to the 'cutting at the roots' level. Sometimes, when a concert is over, one gets paid and some feel it is a job done. But a concert is a concert, it is not a job. It is not the money that is important. It is the singing that is important. I dont call myself as a professional musician. I'm a sangita vidwan.
Besides commercialisation, what are the other changes you see today?
Today, everything is easy. You are all educated. You're all able to communicate very well. For example, I wouldn't even ask a question to my professor. Because I have to be in his good books! But when I went to the U.S., I had to give some classroom lectures and I was amazed and I liked the questions that were thrown to me. The point is that in my generation, we had certain inhibitions. Whatever our teachers said was the law and we had to accept that. Any doubts or clarifications, we had to sought out ourselves. But these days, the youngsters have so many questions and I revel in answering them.
You said that in those days, it was difficult to find a match if you were a musician. Did you face that difficulty too!
Well, I didn't even try getting married till I was 35. I was so involved in my singing and didn't really find the right catch till then! I had to show some financial strength. But finally, being the only son I could not escape matrimony. My wife Vijayalakshmi was herself a music student. She has done her M.A. in music. She was an outstanding academic student and even won a gold medal. She has won several tamburas as prizes from the leading sabhas in Madras. But after marriage, she is more a home-maker. But for her, I wouldn't be what I am today.
Have your children taken up singing too?
My daughter Amrita is doing her M.A. in music besides pursuing a C.A. and my son Shankara Mahadevan is studying B.Com and sings along with me in concerts. I want them to take up music as a career. Music has always been in our family. My father Vembu Iyer was the alter ego of my uncle. But for him, my uncle would never have been able to sing that much. My father was his prime disciple. For his guru bhakthi, whatever my father should have got, I'm getting it now. After my uncle, it was my father who taught me some of the secrets of singing.We used to sing ragams for hours together. He taught me how to plan a concert. It was he who polished me from a raw musician. He is 87 now and continues to encourage me. My mother Gomathi used to sing too. She is 80 now and is not keeping too well.
Your future projects...
Nothing very special. This December is really hectic for me. I'm singing almost everyday. I also keep travelling.
What would you like to tell the younger musicians?
The youngsters today are all well equipped and they are confident singers. They are technically perfect. But sometimes, a casualness sets in. One should not think of this pristine art as a job. You have to put your heart and mind into it. And you should be happy and feel positive all the time.